In Defense of Looking Divine

Posted in Cultural Matters with tags , , , , on April 27, 2014 by playthell

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Parishioners outside Harlem’s Abyssinia Baptist Church

Whatever Happened to Sunday go to Meeting Clothes? “I love dressing up, but I don’t want MY church to emphasize fashion. Everyone should feel welcome -sweat pants and all – that is if it is a place of spiritual worship. My fashion choices should not make one feel insulted IN CHURCH. Let’s encourage people to actually practice, live their religion -even the minister.”

I could not disagree with the above comment more.  Who said the church – in this case the world famous Abyssinia Baptist Church in Harlem – “emphasizes” fashion choices…certainly not I.  What I did was comment on how sharp the parishioners are and celebrate it as a good and welcome practice: decorating oneself to the height of fashion when entering the House of the Lord.

However anybody who knows anything about the history or current activities of this church knows that they are one of the most progressive churches in the nation. This is the church built by Adam Clayton Powell Sr., whose son went on to become the most progressive congressman of his time…and as Chairman of an important committee dealing with health, welfare and labor issues authored and got passed 60 bills that established the laws which are critical to the safety net benefits all Americans enjoy today!

He was also a leader in the civil rights movement and along with his beautiful, musically gifted wife Hazel Scott – and artist whose brilliance is unmatched today – set a standard for high fashion in Harlem that dazzled the world.

The Social Event of 1945 in Harlem

Adam C. Powell and Hazel Scott

The Wedding of Adam Clayton Powell and Hazel Scott
The Performing Artist and the Preacher/Politician
Adam Powell and Hazel Scott
 The Most Stylish Couple in New York!
 The Reverend Adam Clayton Powell Marries Nat and Maria Cole
Adam Powell marries Nat Cole 
Elegance and High Style was the Order of the Day
Two Harlem Foxes: New York’s Finest
Adam's wife Hazel and Lena Horne
Hazel Scott Hangin Out with her Girl Lena Horne
 The Elegance of that Era
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Is personified in the high style of Harlem Congressman Charlie Rangel
 And the Parishioners of Abyssinia Church
A Fine Straw Bonnet
There are no better dressed congregations in New York City!
Elegance is also Alive and Well on Sugar Hill
On Sugar Hill
The Personification of Old School Cool
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The present Pastor, Reverend Doctor Calvin Butts, a minister with a PhD, is one of the most progressive preachers in America whose good works are far too numerous to list here.  Suffice it to say that Abyssinia Baptist Church embodies everything that is great and good about the black American church which Dr. Dubois, an atheist like me – called “one of the most amazing institutions ever created by human beings.”

Now as to the matter of proper attire for church services: I think the comment  “Everyone should feel welcome -sweat pants and all, that is if it is a place of spiritual worship” thoroughly misses the point.  In every society, no matter how simple or complex its development, there are ceremonies and rituals that require the participants to groom and decorate themselves for the occasion.

The elaborateness of the costume is symbolic of the gravitas of the ceremony.  Hence if one believes that God is the creator of the world, and that any good fortune that befalls us is by his grace alone, then not to adorn oneself in finery when you enter his house strikes me as a sacrilege!!!!

Whatever happened to “Sunday go to meeting clothes?”  I was walking around just this last Sunday and saw some young people coming out of a non-black church and I was appalled!  They looked like they were coming from a hip hop show.  If I were the pastor of a church I would have fashion police stationed at the door for the express purpose of turning such people away!!!!

You cannot convince me that you understand the gravitas of the occasion if you are not willing to groom and decorate yourself in your best garments before entering this holy space!!!!  Enough of this disdain for elegance that is plaguing our society…the difference in the attire of black performers like Nat King Cole, Billy Ekstine, Miles Davis, Duke Ellington and Jackie Wilson when compared to Snoop Dog and Little Wayne is a measure of the degree of decadence that is infecting black American culture!

Standing in the Need of Prayer!

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Evidenc of the Hip Hop Fashion Disaster
ENOUGH IS ENOUGH!!!!  IN MY VIEW: IF YOU CAN’T DRESS UP TO VISIT THE HOUSE OF THE LORD THEN YOUR SPIRITUALTY IS ABOUT AS DEEP AS A DRY CREEK BED DURING A DROUGHT!!!!!!

 

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Playthell G. Benjamin
Way Out West, with Harlem on my Mind
April 25, 2014

Melting The Sun

Posted in Guest Commentators, Music Reviews with tags , , on April 20, 2014 by playthell

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 Chris Pendergraft of space rock band Echocosmic

Cosmic Salvation Songs

Down around the back of a former iron foundry in east Oakland’s post-industrial wasteland, if you can find the door and know the secret knock, it is possible of a Friday evening to catch the lyric melancholy and faster-than-light travel of the band EchoCosmic at play. Synching digital beats and mixing board effects with live instruments, these musicians bring well-honed skills and a constant quest for meaning to their music.

In 1997 a quest for meaning through music produced Root Beer, the early band in which brothers-in-music Chris Pendergraft and Mike Blodgett began to work together. Through the writing and performance of the band’s signature protest rock songs, Mike Blodgett’s guitar style developed lyric eloquence, with bright sprays of descending sounds arcing like brief light pulses in the cold and indifferent openness of deep space.

Inherent in the name Echocosmic is the powerful sense of great distance and vast lapses of time.  Cosmic is defined as: the whole universe;immeasurably extended in space or time; vast; harmonious.   All of these elements have a place in the band’s compositions.  The word echo comes to us from the mythological Greek nymph who pined away for the beautiful, indifferent Narcissus until only her voice remained. With this etymology, it is no wonder that the echo carries an implicit sense of melancholy.

But an echo also relates to sound in a manner of interest to music-makers; it is uniquely produced by reflecting sound waves from a surface, where the returning sound may be only a fragment of the original.  And herein lies the heart of the matter, for in the songs of Echocosmic we hear the report of the interstellar traveler, returning across inhuman distance and still more inhuman time.

 These songs are evocative of struggle, mourning, and memory, chronicling the birth of black holes or the explosive nirvana of a star going nova.  ”Red Shift” with its desending chords and cascading shower of deep notes, feels like we are listening to the recorded end of some ancient civilization or an entire planet, perhaps as viewed by an anguished alien race of future spacefarers.

A red shift refers to a change in light wavelengths, moving toward a slower, cooler portion of the spectrum. The sun is a frequent, even baseline reference in space rock, and Echocosmic heeds this tradition.  Another of their songs is meant to communicate the point of view of bacteria colonizing a sun: in the heat of the solar flares, the space bacteria awaken, grow and make a new home.

In 1968, Set the Controls For the Heart of the Sun came out on the album Saucerful of Secrets by Pink Floyd, pioneering progressive rock’s shift toward what would be termed “space rock;” their solar fires and deep cold space attracted the attention of people ranging from NBA Hall of Fame star Dennis Rodman to Exorcist movie star Linda Blair.

Set the Controls for the Heart of the Sun is a ten minute extravaganza of “out there” sound which builds to a violent end that actually comes, impossibly, as a climax. This distinctly disciplined approach to a pulsing momentum with abstract sound became a genre that encompasses much of Echocosmic today.

 Drummer Eric the Mover
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 Keeps the rhythm out there!

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 Mike Blodgett
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Lead Guitar, a Sonic Space Cadet
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 Merging technology and Music
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Powering their Space Odyssey

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Their Rehersal  Space is Also a Recording Studio

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 Which Blodgett built to Free the Band from the tyranny of record companies
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East Bay Artist Susannah Israel and Ray Heywood

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Are Mesmerized by the Music

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 Text by: Susannah Israel
Photos by: Playthell Benjamin
April 20th 2014
Oakland, California

What Militant Islam Looks Like in Africa

Posted in On Foreign Affairs with tags , , , on April 13, 2014 by playthell

 Boko Harem - Islamic Terrorists

Nihilistic Boko Haram Fanatics in Nigeria

 

A Clear and Present Danger to Nigeria’s Quest for Modernity

The latest atrocity committed by fanatical Islamists is the slaughter of over a hundred people in the predominantly Muslim northern region of Nigeria. Gun-wielding Islamic zealots for a Jihadist group calling itself Boko Haram – which means “against western education” – is blamed for the slaughter. In order to understand the thinking behind such bloodthirsty acts one need only study the views of Abubaker Shekau, the supreme leader of Boko Haram.

A shadowy figure that never appears in public and makes his views known through internet video tapes, like Osama bin Laden, Shekau has a proactive attitude toward religiously inspired murder.  In this he is a cookie cutter copy of all jihadist leaders. In a report filed by Addullah Tasiu of the BBC’s Hausa Service, we are told by Professor Abubakar Mu’azu from the University of Maiduguri that Shekau is “is the leader of the more militant wing of the group as testified by his aping of Osama Bin Laden in his video appearances.”

These videos are posted online surreptitiously by a secret cell in Boko Haram known as the “Public Enlightenment Department.” In one of these videos, released in the aftermath of a killing spree where Boko Haram butchers slaughtered 180 innocent people in Kano – the largest city in the predominately Muslim northern region – Abubaker Shenkau looks into the camera and announces to the world: “I enjoy killing anyone that God commands me to kill – the way I enjoy killing chickens and rams.”

To those looking on, this writer included, the question that begs an answer is: “What manner of man is this that could say such a thing?   Shekau does not appear in public due to the fact that the founder of Boko Haram, and his immediate predecessor, Muhammad Yusef, was killed by security forces and Shekau himself barely escaped execution by them.

Now the most wanted man in Nigeria, he would surely be shot on sight if discovered by Nigerian security forces or captured and subjected to a worse fate as an example to others who would follow in his footsteps, Shekua remains in hiding and we are left with descriptions of him by people who knew him before he became notorious.

The Nigerian journalist Ahmed Salkida is such a person.  We are told in the BBC report that Salkida’s access to Skekau and other Boko Haram militants once attracted the attention of Nigeria’s security forces, which became suspicious of his relationship with them, and he barely escaped execution on the spot by virtue of the intervention of a superior officer.  Salkida describes the Boko Haram leader as “a fearless loner, a complex, paradoxical man – part intellectual, part gangster” who is between 36 and 40 years old.  In the picture below he reminds me of former New York Knicks star Earl “The Pearl” Monroe.

Abubeker Shekau
abubakar boko haram
Nigeria’s Most Wanted

A closer look at the life of Skekua and his fanatical co-conspirators in Boko Haram reveals similar patterns of development with other militant Islamic Jihadist movements such as the murderous Taliban in Afghanistan and the multi-national Al Qaeda, the authors of the 9/11 terrorist attack on New York City. The “Taliban,” which translates in English as “Seminarians” are doctrinaire Islamic fundamentalists committed to the establishment of Sharia Law.

Hence this is a religious movement born in the Islamic seminaries in Afghanistan. Abubaker Shekau was recruited and tutored by Mamman Nur, a mutual friend of his and of Boko Haram founder Muhammad Yusef, who were also seminary students.  Mamman is charged with organizing the notorious 2011 bombing of United Nation’s offices in Nigeria. Addressed by the clerical title “Imam” by his followers, Shekau is viewed by authorities as “the quietest and perhaps the most radical of them,” reports the BBC’s Tsiu.

According to Ahmed Sakilda, the journalist who knows him best: “He is one of those who believes that you can sacrifice anything for your belief,” Mr Salkida says.  Mr Shekau is fluent in his native Kanuri, Hausa and Arabic languages – he does not speak English. I used to joke with him that he should teach me Arabic and I would teach him English.”

Like the Talaban,Boko Haram is opposed to all western influence and is willing to resort to intimidation and murder to keep women in a state of complete subjugation to men, forcing them to wear veils, denying them education and employment as professionals, and even needing male permission to leave the house.  Both movements justify such practices as following the dictates of the Koran.

This is what happens when these ancient religious texts are taken literally – for the Christian Bible also contains its share of barbaric absurdities if taken literally. Boko Haram has an organizational structure based on independent cells with a decentralized command structure that makes them impossible to effectively infiltrate.  Their operational principles appear to be “invisible organization” and “Phantom Leadership.”

This explains how they are able to conduct lightning strikes all across Northern Nigeria and disappear as if into thin air.  And the increasing ruthlessness of the Nigerian security forces only serves to increase support for the movement among devout Muslims.

A Boko Haram Cell

 Boko Horem II

 African Soldiers of Allah

Many of these people dwell in a universe dominated by radical Islamic theology that envisions a world that harkens back to the 11th century, a time when, as the Afro-American Astrophysicist Dr. Neil Degrasse Tyson points out, a leading Islamic philosopher decided that mathematics was “the work of the Devil’ and set in motion the anti-intellectual forces that ended Islamic civilization’s 300 years of preeminence in science.

Alas the rejection of “western education” is the 21st century counterpart of this reactionary self-destructive mindset – which arrested development of Islamic civilization and led to the ascension a modern western civilization that dominated the world and the subjugated the Islamic world to the humiliation of European colonialism – the consequences of which they are still struggling to overcome.

Hence when we consider that the main targets of Boko Haram are schools, libraries, cell phone services,  newspapers, etc – the tools of modernization – the Nigerian government has no choice but to crush Boko Haram if it intends to continue its march towards modernity…which is a precondition for effectively competing in a 21st century world.

A Boko Haram’s Mosque
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 They would replace Modern schools with this

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Playthell G. Benjamin
San Francisco, California
April 13, 2014

Praise Songs for a Master Musician

Posted in Cultural Matters, Music Reviews, You Tube Classics with tags , , , , , on April 8, 2014 by playthell
MODELE ARMSTRONG
Louis Armstrong: His horn and voice changed the world of music

A Fitting Tribute to a Great Artist on the Centenary of his Birthday

On the hundredth anniversary of the birth of Louis Armstrong a celebration in his honor was held at Columbia University, one of America’s most distinguished institutions of higher learning. Titled The Artistry of Pops: Louis Armstrong on his 100th Birthday,” three of the nation’s most outstanding intellectuals and artists – Robert O’Meely, Stanley Crouch and Wynton Marsalis – conducted an ancestor veneration ritual in memory of Louis Armstrong, a great American original.

Robert O’Meely is a Professor of English at Columbia, Director of the Institute for Jazz Studies and a serious Jazz scholar who wrote an important book on Billy Holliday; Stanley Crouch is the nation’s premiere Jazz critic and biographer of Charlie Parker; and Wynton Marsalis is Artistic Director of Jazz at Lincoln Center – the most important Jazz performance and education venue in the world – and leader of the internationally renowned Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra, an aggregation of great musicians who can play every genre of jazz without accent.

It is a certainty that almost anyone who takes the time to view this video will be greatly enlightened by the experience.  My certainty lies in the fact that I was enlightened by it and I have been writing about Jazz for over 20 years and have published essays about the music in some of the most prestigious journals in the English language.  The video begins with an opening address by Dr. O’Meely, rich in eloquence and erudition, it paints a complex portrait of Louis Armstrong that demolished the stereotypical view of him as a simple minded entertainer and borderline clown.

What emerges from Professor O’Meely’s succinct but learned lecture is a compelling portrait of a great artist who changed western music and won devotees among musicians and music lovers all over the world.  We learn that the ability to play and instrument and also sing well enough to have a lasting influence on both arts is a very rare feat; the province of genius.  Yet, he tells us, this is precisely what Louis Armstrong did.

       Pop’s Armstrong Singing
                         Louis Armstrong singing
Recording with the magnificent Ella Fitzgerald

Louis Armstrong and Ella Fitgerald

                    One of Pop’s many artistic “children”

In his professorial fashion Dr. O’Meely cited a scholarly text to provide evidence of the influence of Louis Armstrong on the major singers who dominated American jazz and pop music for most of the twentieth century and set the standards many singers still emulate. The Book, “Pops Children,” lets us hear it from the horses’ mouths through the author’s interviews.  Among those who pay homage to Pops as an artistic inspiration and guide are Frank Sinatra, Sarah Vaughn, Tony Bennett, Ella Fitzgerald, Lady Day, et al.

O’Meely’s lecture was the ideal introduction to Louis Armstrong, because he enumerates the many facets of Armstrong’s interests and talents and defines the elements that characterize his style and innovations in western music. Although he teases us with glimpses of Armstrong’s multi-faceted personality and varied interests, he reminds us they are laboring under the tyranny of the clock and thus must confine their discourse to the matter of music.

Despite the fact that he is a Professor of English Dr. O’Meely is a fine music critic.  Like Crouch and Marsalis he is a protégée of the novelist, essayist, musician Ralph Ellison, and Albert Murray, the recently departed Harlem sage and blues philosopher whose masterpiece, “Stomping the Blues,” is a canonical text on Afro-American music…especially Jazz. Thus O’Meely’s analysis is well informed by a broad knowledge of the history and nature of artistic creation and innovation, and his discussion of Louis Armstrong is conducted within the comparative context of all great art.

As a literary man beguiled by the blues in its many splendored guises, Dr. O’Meeley conjures up the memory of Professor Sterling Brown, a Harvard educated pioneer blues poet and longtime Professor of English at Howard University in Washington, who had jazz musicians play for his class live and who is called out by name as the hippest intellectual in the nation’s capitol in Ledbelly’s famous song “Washington is a Bourgeois Town.”  

It was Professor O’Meely who was called upon to make the keynote speech at the dedication of the monumental statute “Invisible Man,” created by Elizabeth Catlett, outside of Ellison’s residence on Riverside Drive, not far from Columbia’s campus. Unlike Sterling Brown, O’ Meely does not need jazz musicians to play for his class because just a few blocks down Broadway from campus is Jazz at Lincoln Center, where the greatest Jazz musicians in the world perform nearly every night.  O’Meely is immersed in the Jazz milieu being centrally located in the Jazz capitol of the world he has seen it all, which makes him an ideal critic fully equipped to evaluate the place of Louis Armstrong in American music.

I got a taste of the depth of his erudition when we debated an essay on music and literature written by Albert Murray in a seminar at the Sorbonne in Paris.

Debating the Learned Professor O’Meely at the Sorbonne
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        A Joint Meeting of the US and European Associations of American Studies  

At the conclusion of his learned commentary on the character and contributions of Pops Armstrong, Professor O’Meely turned the floor over to Stanley Crouch and Wynton Marsalis after reading their impressive bonafides to the audience, calling them “two of the smartest people talking about Jazz.” Crouch was introduced first to tumultuous applause, but when Wynton walked on stage, trumpet in hand, the crowd went wild.

In an extended discussion Crouch compared the heroism of people who invent major movements in art or intellectual ideas to those in classical Greek mythology, and Wynton dazzled with his in-depth knowledge of the art of trumpet playing and the history of its development in the USA. As always, his lecture became a “show and tell” when he would demonstrate his point on the trumpet.

This video is a wonderful portrait of Pops which require no further comment, since we have the film. However it is impossible to overstate the importance of the work that O’Meely, Crouch and Marsalis are doing by institutionalizing Jazz in elite, well funded, American cultural and academic institutions such as Lincoln Center and Columbia University.

It is both fitting and proper that this effort should be led by Afro-American artists and intellectuals.  Jazz is, after all, Black America’s gift to the nation and America’s gift to world culture.  Look, listen and learn about one of the greatest artists and most interesting American men of the 20th century, the trumpet virtuoso that invented both the extended Jazz solo and a distinctly American approach to singing… the Jazz song.

Pops At Carnegie Hall with Kate Middleton 1947
Louis_Armstrong_and_Velma_Middleton,_Carnegie_Hall,_New_York,_N.Y.,_ca._Feb._1947_
                      A Sartorial Trend Setter Always sharp as a Tack
The Axe with Which Louis Conquored the World!
Louis Arnstrongs trumpet presented to him by King George V of England in 1933
This Trumpet was a gift from King George V in 1933
Double click on link to see the video Tribute
http://youtu.be/G0X24dJHYq4 

Playthell Benjamin

Harlem, New York

April 4, 2014

It’s Yo Birthday Susannah!

Posted in Cultural Matters with tags , , , on March 30, 2014 by playthell

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Holla! Hue Yang and daughter Quinlee

 Susannah Makes Sixty and the Eulypians Rejoiced

 She was like the Chief Sorceress in the gathering of poets, painters, thespians, musicians, singers and other makers of that splendid alchemy called art.  As she strolled among the adoring crowd of mostly former students, colleagues and friends,  Susannah Israel – sculptor, writer/critic, and teacher extraordinaire – graciously presided over the crowd with the grace of a queen mother from some ancient time.  It was Susannah’s sixtieth birthday and the convocation of free and generous spirits had gathered to joyously celebrate this gifted artist and teacher that never stops giving.

It was a celebration worthy of the occasion, as Susannah’s friends brought forth a variety of gifts, some in the form of succulent foods prepared with loving care by their own hands. Others, skilled in the culinary arts, offered their service on the grill or in the oven, and some groomed and decorated themselves in daring fashion, adding panache to the party by making exotic spectacles of themselves.  And of course, one of the joys of any gathering of Eulypians – i.e. makers and lovers of the arts – is the stimulating conversation.  Suffice it to say that was in rare abundance.

However of all the evening’s amusements the musicians stole the show.  Of course I am one of those musically sensitive souls for whom the bang of the drum, trill of the trumpet and clash of the cymbals causes my pulse to quicken.  I confess this because I believe all writers who venture value judgments about the relative merits of cultural experiences ought to declare their biases, and I have been madly in love with music all of my life. The proof of it is that I have written about more different genres of music than any music critic in New York City….which is the mecca of music critics.

Yet despite whatever bias I might bring to the subject, I believe I am right in the accolades I pay to the musicians. The groove ranged from the tight Neo-Soul sounds of Harry and the Hitmen, who were jamming in the exotic décor of bassist-bandleader Jesse Toews Studio/Crib.  The band plays original material wherever possible, because they write a lot of music, and if the sampling I heard is a fair representation of what they do – first rate music performed by accomplished musicians.  I think they have a better than even chance making themselves felt in the music industry.

The musical offering was diverse, ranging from smooth Neo-Soul to hard rock guitar boy band sounds and deep Blues.   Veteran musician Dee “Big Dog” Hensley anchored the evening’s musical offering in rock and blues performances. first with a Jimi Hendrix style trio of Lead guitar, bass and drums reminicent of Band of Gypsies, and then a rendering of deep blues. His set was topped off by a blues performance featuring his wife Donalda Gilligan, a former singer with the Oakland Interfaith Gospel Choir, who gave a soulful blues shout out.

Listening to the musical peformances I got the same feeling I expeienced in a nightclub on a visit to London. (See “On Being Black in London” on this blog)  I was taken to what I was told was the hippest nightclub in town, which had three floors and on each floor the music was of Afro-American origins. The band on the first floor, all British musicians, was a septet laying Miles Davis’ “ll Blues ” with the same instrumentation.  On the second floor was an elegant restuarant that played only Afro-American big band classics and when I walked in I heard Sarah Vaughn with the Count Basie Orchestra.  and on the top floor was a disco where “Ladies Night” by Kool and the Gang was rockin the house.

The London experience and the Vulcan party honoring Professor Sussanah Israel offered irrefutable evidence of the extent to which Afro-American music has changed the cultural sensibilities of the western world in the twentieth century and left its imprint on world culture (See: “Jazz Around the World” on this blog and Western Culture Revised, in the Freedomways Reader.)  All in all it was a joyous fete that brought friends together and good vibes were everywhere in the air.  It was a happy birthday indeed!

                                                                  Josh and Lexi…….
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……..Were the moving spirits that made it Happen!

 Friends Brought Food, Wine and Wisdom Weed

DSC06763 And Joyous Smiles all Around!
 And Real Prime Northern California Bud!

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 True Wisdom Weed…A gift from the Earth Goddess!
It was a Carnivore’s Paradise!
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Real Mexican Beef!
 And there was Music

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 Vintage Hard Boy Band Rock
 And Real Blues too

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Dem low down dirty Juke Joint Blues
Wailed by Soulful Shouters……
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…….Who stomped the Blues
 Harry and the Hitmen….

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 Rocked tha House
 They Have an Original Sound

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 Not Just Old Wine in New Skins
 And they Keep it Funky!

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It’s all about The Rhythm
They Sing Too!

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 And Rock the Tambourine
 They Are a Self-Contained Band

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They Play, and Sing, and Write their Own Songs
 Erudite Conversation was Common Fare
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Professors Tiffany Schmierer  Michelle Gregor and Jason Dunn
 Some Board Members of the Oakland Ceramic Art Museum

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                                                    Dr. Dar Fong Joined the Fete
  It was a warm Diverse Gathering
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 Where old friends greeted each other enthusiastically
 Lexi Greeting Elaine Toland…….

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 ……….the Illustrious East Bay Painter
 Princess Lia Went High Fashion
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And got it just right: elegance through simplicity

 

And Other Free Spirits……

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……..Were indifferent to fashion

 

Charity, A Grateful former Student and Fine Artist…

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 ……….Gave her Professor  a Big Bear Hug
While Lexi Laughed with A Wild Child

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 If they are lucky 30 years hence…..they may look like the Birthday Girl
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 Susannah at Sixty!!!

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And look what she’s workin With!

 

 A Sizzling Senior Citizen!

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Fire and Ice in a Contemplative Mood
 Double Click to see Harry and the Hit Men

http://youtu.be/rzd79LPvK5Y

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Playthell G. Benjamin
Oakland, Cali
March 30, 2014

An Open Letter to President Obama

Posted in On Foreign Affairs with tags , , , , on March 28, 2014 by playthell
Barack Obama Barack’s Resolve in full Effect

 

Mr. President: Stand Your Ground against the Warmongers!

Throughout your tumultuous and productive presidency, through thick and thin, I have been an unwavering supporter and friend.  I have fearlessly defended your record and character from attacks on the right and left. I have shared your vision and supported your policies because I believed they were the best possible choices among the possibilities.

Upon coming into office you inherited one of the worst crisis’ in history, a multi-level mess that involved a wrecked economy, a world financial system on the brink of collapse, and two foreign wars; yet you resolved them with Christian compassion and Solomonic wisdom. I have been looking over your shoulder the whole time, recording your major moves in writing – which has now run into hundreds of essays, and the first volume of a compilation will be published this year.

It is because I have paid such close attention to your policies and proposals, and the nasty nature of a Republican opposition whose actions have endangered national security and bordered on treason, that I have repeatedly taken on friends and colleagues on the radical left, or pompous self-righteous liberals, in a protracted no holds barred rumble when they attacked you because you didn’t embrace their ideology or couldn’t make all their dreams come true. I, on the other hand, am amazed at what you have actually accomplished under the circumstances. Since I have written about this elsewhere I won’t reiterate it here.

Unlike some of your most vociferous critics, ala Cornel West and Boyce Watkins, who portray your compromises as betrayal, I know that you are just playing politics.  And like you, who is obviously gifted at the game, I understand that politics is the art of the possible!  Hence if we look candidly at the present political realities in US domestic affairs and our foreign relations just now, it is fair to say that you have some monumental fights ahead.

Between the tumultuous events abroad, which the US cannot control but refuses to accept, and your increasing inability to govern at home because of the disloyal Republicans in the House of Representatives and US Senate, whose sole mission has not been to govern effectively but to destroy your presidency, it does not take a seer to see that it will require your best efforts to avoid disaster at home and abroad.

As the crisis in the Ukraine grows more antagonistic it is absolutely critical that you follow the example of your fellow Chicagoan, the brilliant song poet and compassionate humanist Oscar Brown Jr.,  who declared “I always live by one golden rule: Whatever happens don’t blow yo cool!” If ever there was a time to be the calm and collected fellow we came to know as “No Drama Obama” ……it is now.  For you are confronted with a situation that if handled badly could result in a catastrophe worse than the Old Testament’s descriptions of the Flood of Noah, which, despite its horrors and widespread destruction, life flourishes on this planet.

But as James Baldwin, the prescient Afro-American scribe and seer warned: “God gave Noah the rainbow sign….no more water, the fire next time!” This, in essence, is the fundamental issue: Will you be the one to spark the atomic fire that will incinerate the earth and destroy not only modern civilization but all life on this planet, which, as near as our brightest scientist can tell, is unique in the vast expanse of the universe?  In the absence of great diplomacy while mediating the crisis between Russia and the Ukraine, the destruction of the world will be your legacy Mr President.  “To be or not to be?….this is the question.”

Doomsday!

Atomic Explosion II
The end of our world is closer than you think

I have been told that my concern about thermonuclear war is excessive by some very intelligent and well-meaning people, but I find their confidence to be based more on faith that politicians will act rationally than any understanding about how nuclear weapons systems actually work.  In fact, like most Americans, they have not really given the matter much thought. Thus they discount the possibility that a nuclear war could start by accident.

But I have been intensely interested in the question of nuclear warfare for over half a century now, because it has been omnipresent in my life, and I don’t share their optimism. Coming of age at the height of the “Cold War” with the Soviet Union I participated in gruesome “atom bomb drills” at school which required us to go through the motions of procedures we were told would be required for surviving an atomic bomb detonation. Unlike the blasé attitude of the public today, people in the 1950’s thought an atomic war with Russia was not only possible but probable.  General Curtis Lemay, commander of the US Strategic Air Command,  thought it was enevitable.

Indeed, this fear was the raison d’etre for our massive Civil Defense programs. The more cynical among the students – this writer included – took these exercises as a sort of make believe; a sick joke in the tradition of gallows humor.  None of us thought we would survive such a war. In fact we even designed a sign and surreptitiously posted it on the bulletin board that announced: “In case of an atomic attack get under your desk, pull you head between your knees, and kiss yo ass good bye!”

A few years later, when I wound up in the Strategic Air Command with a Top Secret security clearance, which was then the supreme US nuclear strike force, I no longer wanted to survive a nuclear war because I knew the aftermath would be such a horror the living would be jealous of the dead. Back then the threat came largely from transcontinental strategic bombers that could refuel in mid-air.

Today the threat lies in intercontinental ballistic missiles with MIRV – Multiple Independent Reentry Vehicles – nuclear warheads which can strike several targets at once.  They can be fired from land, air or sea and they are all subject to computer errors!  Furthermore I know for sure that there are people sitting in front of radar screens in secret locations unknown to the general US public as I write who will launch our missiles should the right scenario appear on their screens.  Having dwelled among them I know they will do it!

The same thing can be said of the Russians.  And if they ever launch these doomsday weapons we can kiss this planet goodbye….if we have time before the big bang. This is why ratcheting up tensions with talk of expanded naval maneuvers in the Black Sea, while ground forces exercise in the former Warsaw Pact countries that border Russia and was part of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics during the communist period of Russian history, is the extremist folly….the acme of absurdities!

When George Bush was poised to invade Iraq based on the flawed logic, outright lies and consequently bad advice of his top advisors – most of whom are now attempting to goad you into taking antagonistic actions toward Russia by calling you weak in a Greek chorus of repetitive voices accompanied by rattling sabers – I vociferously opposed it from the beginning.

In an essay titled “The Iraq Attack: Bush’s March of Folly” –See: The Prophetic Commentary on Iraq at www.commentariesonthetimes.wordpress.com. –  I predicted an attack on Iraq would end in a tragic fiasco that would do nothing to diminish the threat from Islamic Jihadists.  Today, with the impeccable hindsight of history it is altogether fitting to call that essay “prophetic,” for the facts prove me entirely right.

I am calling your attention to this essay – and my essays on the “Arab Spring” such as Sleeping in the Same Bed Dreaming Different Dreams - not to gloat, but if by chance my letter should reach you I want to point out that I have a paper trail which demonstrates why you should be listening to me rather than some of those jokers who are presently advising you on foreign affairs.

Although the Iraq war cost us trillions of dollars and buckets of blood, the nation survived Bush’s folly.  Alas, the world cannot survive similar blunders in the present situation.  A drift into military hostilities with a nuclear armed Russia could, as a recent Russian commentator reminded us, “reduce the US to a pile of radioactive dust.”  The fact that we can return the destruction as the MAD doctrine dictates is no consolation…it is the essence of a pyrrhic victory.

Thus you must resist calls for military adventurism in Eastern Europe Mr. President, no matter how loudly the hysterical warmongers on the right may howl; led by that soulless opportunist and Vietnam-era snitch posing as a war hero John McCain, who seems intent upon exorcising his Vietnam demons by starting wars everywhere in the hope of winning one somewhere.  And his Senate sidekick Lindsay Graham, a shameless moral jellyfish whose allegiance is dictated by expedience in matters of principle, deserves no hearing.

Let them talk, you are the Commander-In-Chief, and we chose you over the Mack Man for the position, so you need pay him no rabbit ass mind. The boisterous Arizona jingoist is just one of a hundred Senators, and nowhere near the best statesman in that august body, but you sir are the President.  Fortunately for this nation and the world, McCain is all blow and no go, but what you say and do can determine the course of history.

You have inherited a very dangerous situation in Eastern Europe due to some badly misguided decisions by your predecessors; the most volatile of which was the decision to recruit former members of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics into the North Atlantic Treaty Organization. This was as bone headed a move as ever there was in the history of modern diplomacy.

As a student of history you well understand that NATO was a creation of the Cold War era following the carnage of World War II, when the Us and Russia were feverishly contending for world domination as representatives of the capitalist and communist systems.  Thus NATO should have been disbanded at the end of the Cold War in the 1990’s when the Russians dismantled their communist system, outlawed the Communist Party and disbanded the Warsaw Pact – a military alliance between socialist countries that was the counter-force to NATO.

But instead of ending the alliance the US fought not only to preserve NATO but expand it….right to the doorsteps of Russia. This means that should Slovenia or Latvia have a military conflict with Russia the US is at war with Russia! Which is why heating up the rhetoric with Russia poses such great dangers; if ever there was a time for cool heads to prevail it is now Mr. President.

Hence it is imperative that you play past all the tough talk from your critics on the right, tell them them save the drama for they mamma, and don’t take no wooden nickels masquerading as real currency.  Keep your eyes on the prize – a peaceable settlement of the Ukrainian crisis – for the fate of the earth hangs in the balance.

*****************************

  Playthell G. Benjamin
On the beautiful San Francisco Bay
March, 27 2014

Is Hip Hop Art?

Posted in Cultural Matters, Music Reviews with tags , , , , , , on March 16, 2014 by playthell
Barack, Byonce and Jay Z
Chilly B, Honey B and Jay Z…..Holla!

Response to A Friend’s Comment on Hip Hop

The first thing I saw when I switched on my Facebook page this morning, which has now become a daily ritual, was a post from my friend Eric Wattree, a learned scribe from the left coast who is also an accomplished jazz musician. The post was a video clip of Quincy Jones presenting Emily Bear, a young white female of rare musical gifts – Quincy pointed out that she has composed several pieces for symphony orchestras – but since this was the Montreux Jazz Festival she was performing jazz piano on this occasion.

The clip was accompanied by the comment “Are we going to become the first culture in the history of mankind who are incapable of playing what we created?”  I thought it a curious comment, since I did not find her particularly impressive as a Jazz pianist.  She reminded me more of Philippa Duke Schuyler, the daughter of Afro-American writer and the blond Texas heiress and artist Josephine Cogdell, who had been selected as a coveted Sennett Bathing Beauty. Phillippa was not only performing the masterworks for piano in European classical music as a child, but showed such promise as a composer by nine years old she was seriously compared to Mozart at her age by American professors of music.

And had it not been for the racism and snobbery that characterized the attitude of the European Classical music community toward Jazz – An Afro-American complex instrumental Music that is now regarded as classic American art – I have no doubt that Phillippa would have mastered Jazz piano too.  After all, she lived on Sugar Hill in Harlem, which was home to many great black jazz musicians, including Duke Ellingon and Andy Kirk, whose wife was a great pianist that gave Charlie Parker his first gig when they lived in Kansas City.  Mrs. Kirk was a fabulous piano teacher who taught generations of Harlem kids to play.

Phillippa Duke Schuyler

 Phillapa Scuyler III  - editd copy

 A Musical Prodigy Performing her Compositions
 Phillippa Schuyler around Emily Bear’s Age
Phillapa SchuylerA world class virtuoso pianist and composer!

When he went on to  observe that “scatching a record is not art,” it became obvious that Eric is alarmed by the wholesale intoxication with Hip Hop beats by young folks – you hear them everywhere, even in the cadences of black marching bands –  and he is responding to the sad possibility that there will come a time when young black musicians will be unable to perform the complex art of Jazz, a genre of instrumental music which in order to perfom properly requires virtuosity from everybody in the band.

The possibility that this grand achievement of Afro-American culture could be lost to future generations of black musicians is cause for alarm….but how real is this fear? After giving his comments a moment’s reflection I thought: My man needs to chill out; things are not nearly so dire regarding the supply of outstanding young black Jazz musicians. I wondered if his pessimism comes from the fact that he lives in LA, because here in the Big Apple there is no paucity of great young black Jazz musicians.

It’s not the absence of black musicians that’s the problem in New York, it’s finding a black audience! By virtue of the heroic efforts of Wynton Marsalis and the magnificent Jazz at Lincoln Center program, there is now a curriculum to guide music teachers in formally teaching the essential techniques of jazz performance available upon request: And its free!

Before Jazz at Lincoln Center got off the ground the great singer/bandleader Betty Carter hosted conferences that brought gifted young jazz virtuosi from all over the country to study and perform at her Jazz workshop at the Majestic Theater in Brooklyn, under the sponsorship of the Brookly Academy of Music.   I covered one of these conferences for the Sunday Times of London, and it was published under the title “School For Cats,”  which can now be read on this blog

One of the revelations in this essay is that all of the most gifted young jazz musicians also loved HipHop.  Pianist Cyrus Chestnut liked playing on rap tracks and Adonis Rose, who was the drummer with the brilliant Jazz pianist Marcus Roberts, told me he had just finished playing behind some rappers and he loved it as mush as playing with Roberts! Hence I concluded that young Afro-americans musicians love both Jazz and Hip Hop equally….its a generational thing.

Adonis Rose

Adonis Rose II

A Young Master keeping the tradition alive!

Eric is right that scratching records is not making music in the traditional sense of playing an instrument, but scratching records is only a part of what hip hop MC’s do -there is the art of sampling records and creating unique beats, often creating entirely new songs.  And some of them can rap!  Many outstanding old school jazz masters not only recognize, but admire, the achievements of Hip Hop artists. A couple ot years ago I heard Grady Tate – the most widely recorded drummer in history – being interviewed at the Jazz Museum in Harlem, which is creating a priceless audio-video museum of jazz history.

When asked about hip hop in a room full of jazz heads, mostly middle aged and older, Tate had this to say: “I think the most innovative thing happening in recorded music today is hip hop.” A collective gasp of shock and disbelief went up in the room, but he continued: “I believe that certain people are genetically programmed to play music.”

He explained how he became a musician because he went to a high school with a great music program which even supplied the instruments – like the school I went to – then he pointed out how many inner-city kids were robbed of that opportunity because the philistine businessman and accountants that control school boards that fund education cut out formal musical instruction, school marching bands and orchestras. In response to this bleak musical predicament they created a new way of making music: HIP HOP

                                Grady Tate: Master Percussionist and Jazz Virtuoso
Grady Tate
He became a musician because of his high school music program

As a drummer he loves their beats, and as a Shakespearian actor with a degree in English literature he loves many of their clever rhymes and free verse poetry set to those beats. Tate went on to further explain that these young black and Hispanic kids in New York – the real home of Hip Hop – have not only created an art form which is now practiced around the world, but when he is touring he makes a point of checking them out, and he has discovered that the themes in their rhymes address local realities and concerns.

For instance, when I interviewed the Editor of Cuba’s first Hip hop magazine and radio programmer, he told me: “Hip hop is the true voice of young Afro-Cubans!” Then he proceeded to show me how young Afro-Cubans were setting the poems of Nicholas Guillen, the great Afro-Cuban Poet Laureate of Cuba, to rumba beats and reciting them over the beats. In other words, it is the specific lyrical content that determines the character of a particular rap.

Like Ragtime music, which is now universally recognized as a great art form, but in Scott Joplin’s time was regarded as “Whore house music.” And that, as Scott Joplin complained at the time, was due to “the bawdy lyrics” that so often accompanied the music. That’s why Joplin wrote Treemonisha, a full scale grand opera set to ragtime music, in order to demonstrate the nobility of the form. Hip hop is a very versatile form and has the power to affect human sensibility in myriad ways….it depends upon the artist!

Scott Joplin
Ragtime_Piano_SCOTT_JOPLIN__sheet Music
 Composed a Ragtime Opera to prove nobility of the music

And contrary to conventional wisdom about all rap lyrics celebrating murder, mayhem and debauchery, Hip hop mogul Russell Simmons never tires of pointing out: the “positive poets” have found the greater success. For instance Queen Latifah, Will Smith, LL Cool Jay, Puffy, et al. I started writing about hip hop from its inception here in New York.

I was friends with Joe Robinson, the owner of Sugar Hill Records, who recorded the first Hip Hop group, The Sugar Hill Gang’s “Rapper’s Delight,” before anybody had made a rap record. When I first met Joe, the epitome of an old school gentleman gangster, he was in the Rhythm and Blues business but was an avid Jazz fan. However he was in business to make money; so he let the market dictate his business decisions – which is to say he was always looking for the big hit….and that was not going to happen recording jazz acts. Alas, the jazz acts that made money i.e. Miles Davis, Herbie Hancock, Quincy Jones, the Jazz Crusaders, et al were already signed to major labels.

Joe was indifferent to what these young people were inventing  – it was just a “product” to him – but  I, like Grady Tate, Max Roach and Quincy Jones, dug what these kids were doing from the git go. And I wrote about the virtues and vices of this new popular art form in: The Village Voice, New York Daily News, Sunday Times of London, Guardian Observor of London, Source Magazine: “The Bible of Hip Hop,” Spin Magazine, etc.  Grady Tate made one more important point about Hip hop artists in comparison to some of the greatest figures in modern Jazz: The jazzmen were so high on dope they didn’t know where their money went! While hip hop artists smoke Wisdom Weed and control millions!!!!All True!!!

Russell Simmons

Russell and Obama

With President Obama; you’ve come a long way baby!

Russell Simmon’s house on Long Island is the biggest mansion on the East coast – including those of the 19th century Robber Barons like Cornelius Vanderbilt Mansion on the famed Fifth Ave “Millionaire’s Row.” and among his guests are Bill and Hillary Clinton. According to a CBS 60 minutes report Jay Z heads a billion dollar business conglomerate; which means has made more money than Mitt Romney, and Mitt started life in a Michigan Mansion while Jay Z started in the Marcy Projects in Brooklyn. See: Is Jay Z a Better Businessman than Mitt?”at:  http://commentariesonthetimes.wordpress.com/?s=jay+z.

Will Smith turned down a scholarship to MIT to pursue a hip hop career, and he has gone from rap music star, to television star, to movie super star. He and his wife Jada were replaced as the number one power couple in Show business by Jay Z and Beyonce. Ice Cube is a for real movie mogul who has the wherewithal to greenlight his own movie productions, and Sean P Ditty Combs has gone from a local producer of rap concerts in New York City to a businessman with a fortune estimated to exceed 500 million dollars!

                                                        P Ditty

Sean Puffy coombs (2)

 Playing it to the MaX

He owns apartment buildings on the posh upper side of Manhattan, is an award winning designer of formal men’s evening wear, and played the complex starring role in A Raisin in the Sun on Broadway, to critical acclaim from both professional critics and the seasoned actors in the cast. Jay Z and Beyonce, next to their Friends Barack and Michelle, are America’s most popular power Couple and also talented performers. And they replaced Will Smith and Jada Pinkett in that role.  In hip hop the rappers come from all stations in life and what they share in common is their love of bustin a rhyme over dope beats while they tell a story about the gritty realities of life.

                                                            Will and Jada
                 Will Smith and Jada IIII                     
Hollywood Power Couple
Jay Z and Beyonce

Byonce and Jay III

America.s most popular power couple

Hip Hop is the first truly Afro-American popular musical form that manages to speak straight-up to all of the issues that concern them personally and Afro-Americans in general. The blues, for all of its profound insights into the human condition, developed in the deep-south where a black man could lose his life for telling the truth as he knew it, especially if he did so with the irreverence and total disregard for white sentiment as these rappers.

Hence the blues is replete with complex metaphors and allusions, while the rappers “keep it real.” The range of beats, vocal “flows,” technical innovation in the recording studio, and the lyrical content range from the trite and vulgar to the profound – the entire range of human personality and experience. One need only listen to the raps of Oakland’s “Too Short” and compare them to the lyrics – and superb studio work – of Ohene of Philadelphia.

Too Short is a specialist from the ghetto who tells tawdry tales his fans call “straight gutter,” while  transcendent poetry that profoundly addresses the complexities of global black experience in the 21st century are the stock in trade of Ohene – and both do what they do with high style and panache. I am including clips of both these artists so the reader can hear for themselves what I mean.

Too Short!

Too Short

Livin his Short Guy Dreams?

In Too Short and Ohene with see a sharp contrast in Hip Hop styles i.e. the purposes to which this performance vehicle is put: the images and values it projects.  And we can see how much musical talent and general intelligence shapes the character and complexity of their product.  As in all things talent, character and intelligence will distinguish one performer from another and in the case of Too Short and Ohene the difference could hardly be more dramatic.

The two performances I have attached below will demonstrate the polar opposites of their concerns and musical skills, yet both are legitimate representations of the Hip Hop genre. In two Short’s “I’m a Player” we get yet another tour through the twisted life of a wannabe ghetto pimp.  His descriptions of a desirable relationship with women are bizarre; a third rate Mack’s rap – I’ve heard much better from real Macks I’ve known – that sounds more like war than love.

Too Short brazenly puts all of his pathologies on display: There is no shame in his game.  It does not take a psychiatrist to recognize these lyrics as the creation of a man with a strong Napoleonic Complex – aka Short guy inadequacy syndrome – and a deep fear of being dominated by women.  After all, he looks like a chocolate version of Mr. Peanut and was grew up poor to boot.

We can be sure that he was not the ideal lady’s man, but he became one by persistence and astute observation of female character and desire.  Among the things that he no doubt discovered is that seduction is a game, and persistence, self-confidence, a quick wit – i.e. knowing what to say outta yo mouth at the right time – are more powerful weapons than good looks in this game.  When you add the elements of fame, money and the ability to back up your boasts in bed to the mix, you have the makings of a formidable ladies man.

It seems to me that despite his successes this fear of being “chumped” by women remains, and it is the source of his super macho pimp daddy demeanor; his stone cold Playa attitude.  Yet every time I see one of these rappers coming on all hard I wonder if it’s real or they have swiped somebody else’s story.

Is this guy  for Real?

Too short II

……..Or just another Perpetrator?

Inevitably, when I am wondering if somebody’s street cred is real, that chilling video by Eazy E, “Real Motherfuckin G’s!” always comes to mind.   In this video they call out Dr. Dre, Snoop Dog and the whole “Death Row Records” crowd – a label that everybody in the record business thought of as cold blooded killers, especially the 300 pound giant who ran the company, Suge Knight. But Eazy E and his crew called them “Studio Gangstas,” i.e. great pretenders, “actors,” perpetrators with no respect on the streets, and dared them to “step to some real motherfuckin G’s!”

The sincerity of the challenge is clear in the video; it is the sonic equivalent of a drive by shooting….a point that they visually portray at the end of the video.  Gangsta Rap is California’s contribution to Hip Hop, and when murder and mayhem is your theme…”keepin it real” is an invitation to disaster.

Eazy E

eazy E II

A Real Cool Killer? Or Avatar of US Gun Culture

That’s the tradition which spawned Too Short…except his raps wisely concentrate on fuckin more than fightin….the war between the sheets rather than the war in the streets.  Yet the lessons to the youth are just as destructive….if not more so.  It is from fucked up relationships such as those portrayed in Too Short’s raps that produce the psychologically damaged kids who grow into the monsters that wreak havoc on our communities and put all young black males in American under suspicion.

A lot of people who promote this music because of its enormous popularity among teens and young adults of all races and classes, try to deny that this is the consequence of these compelling narratives set to hypnotic beats and seductively spouted by ghetto speakcians, skilled motor mouths who prize the spoken word over the written word.

Ohene: Artistic King of Hip Hop!

Ohene I

 His words are sonic balm that heal the spirit

While being no less committed to the spoken word recited over funky beats dance oriented beats, Ohene – whose name is the traditional title of Ashanti warrior Kings – has completely different concerns and is an accomplished musician who loves jazz.  One need only listen to this track below “Big Things, Y’all Can’t Stop this Music!” to hear this.

The record comes on swinging hard and Ohene’s voice replaces the traditional horn improvising over the rhythm section rapping in the phrase that suggest instruments “I’m the undisputed rap coach!” he declares, throwing out the traditional challenge to sucka MC’s who might be feeling froggish and contemplating stepping to him lyrically by flowing over weak beats.

He quickly warns “My chat is in sync with the syncopation of Max Roach / Imagine Bird with his sax folks / Theolonius Monk with his third hand…..” Ohene continues to extol the prowess of black Jazz greats until he reaches a point where he announces “Playing piano like my dad.”  At this point the performance goes from brilliant to sublime as he begins to play the piano.

To accompany yourself on piano while singing is difficult even if the song is Twinkle Twinkle Little Star, but to play rhythmically complex Be-bop riffs on the piano while singing lyrics you have written to it is off the charts of measurable difficulty.  It is a spiritual communion expressed as musical artistry.

The aesthetic achievement of this performance ranks with the very best that has been achieved with voice, lyrics and instrumental composition.  Lyrically Ohene’s raps reveal him to be a man of vision and gravitas who, like Richard Wagner, seeks to elevate a nation of people with his songs.  While the track attached below celebrates the heroism of Afro-American jazz musicians, Ohene has written poignant narratives about all phases of life in contemporary American society.

As a serious researcher into Hip Hop’s roots, Ohene, who teaches a course on the art of Hip Hop at Temple University,  employs all the beats in the evolution of the genre and he uses them like an alchemist constructing foundations of rhythmic sounds upon which to build edifices of thought in words like “love is the ultimate truth in any culture.” In raps like “Nobody is Fighting…I just Don’t Understand,” which is a call for Pan-African resistance to the forces that would destroy us, and is also appended to this text below.

Hence to sum up the difference in the Hip hop styles of Ohene and Too Short, who represent polar opposites in rap music, suffice it to say that the former presents an enlightened vision of human possibility designed to inspire “the better angels of our nature,” as Abraham Lincoln once put it, thus providing the kind of hope and inspiration that can elevate a nation, while Too Short appeals to the worst in us….and preaches a gospel of decadence and debauchery that can only lead to tragedy.  As in Hip Hop – So in Life!

Hip Hop Ladies: All Hail the Queen!!

Queen Latifa II

Her Sharp Tongue and Regal Presence Empowred Girls of all Ages!

Like Jazz, Hip Hop is a predominantly black male art, but there are some outstanding female stars.  And none shines brighter than Queen Latifah.  While some female rappers seek to answer the males with raps that are just as down and dirty – like Roxanne Shante, Foxy Brown and L’il Kim – the Queen mostly kept her rhymes clean.

With a keen intellect and razor sharp wit she sassily took on the misguided macho misogynistic posturing that characterized so much of male rap.  A physically imposing woman with a fearless demeanor, she “represented” for women with Raps like “Ladies First.”  She was a culture hero to many girls of all backgrounds, my daughter included, and she went on to become one of Hip Hop’s biggest stars bar none.

The Queen as Glamour Girl

Queen Latifa

Tall, Tan, Thick and Fine

While Foxy Brown and L’il Kim are big stars in the Hip Hop world they have never been able to break through to a more general audience because of the raunchy image they chose.  Hence while there is no question that L’il Kim’s “Don’t Want Dick Tonight” is a wonderfully composed and performed rap, it is too risqué for general audiences.

Latifah’s style on the other hand will play everywhere; that’s why she went on to become a bonafide star in television and movies. She made big women fashionable when she was selected as a spokesmodel for Cover Girl cosmetics.  As I write she is hosting her own syndicated daytime television talk show.  Queen Latifah, a Rapper from New Jersey, has marketed her brand world-wide.  Eve, a rapper from Phily, rose from being a hair dresser to stardom and was the first female rapper to have her on television sitcom.  But she has not shown the staying power of the Queen.

Some Final Observations

Hip Hop is the closest that Afro-Americans have come to producing a song poetry that approaches the profundity that is common fare in the art of Calypso. see http://commentariesonthetimes.wordpress.com/?s=long+live+calypso. As to whether or not Hip Hop is art, I would say that its record of success in speaking to the hearts and minds of people around the globe, by virtue of the product Hip Hop producers and performers create in the studio, there can be no question that it is great commercial popular art at its best.

I however do believe that there is a distinction between fine art and commercial art, and that its merit on the scale of artistic achievement and cultural importance can be graded. But it is an objective that is exceedingly hard to achieve, for to succeed at this one must be broadly learned in the art forms under discussion, and objective enough in one’s approach to privilege an unpleasant truth over confirming one’s prejudices.

Many smart and sincere people have failed this test – like the musicians in the high German church who were convinced that Bach was ruining sacred music. Given the volatile emotions surrounding hip hop we will certainly not resolve the question as to what constitutes fine art here – so profound a question is clearly beyond the scope and ambition of this essay….Hence we will simply let our statement stand as is….

To hear Ohene double click on link below
Too Short
I’m A Player
 
Eazy E

http://youtu.be/vQNLEhVAXSg

Real Motherfuckin G’s
Queen Latifa: Ladies First

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hLB5bUNAesc

See Emily Bears Performance

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5JpACC1_jP8

****************************
Playthell G. Benjamin
New York and San Francisco
March 2014
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